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Balancing Work and Family Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Who Fared Better and Worse?


Andreea Constantin, Myra Hamilton, Marian Baird

It is well established that having care responsibilities can affect paid work and wellbeing, but the last two years have generated new pressures for those with care responsibilities. The coronavirus-19 (COVID-19) pandemic resulted in strict public health and social protective measures that resulted in partial or full closure of essential services for children, people with a disability or chronic illness, and frail older people. Many unpaid carers, including those in employment, found themselves juggling additional care responsibilities with much less of the regular support they would normally receive from family, friends, schools, and formal care services such as early childhood education and care, disability care, aged care, and other community services.

Much of the research on the impacts of the pandemic on work-life reconciliation has focused on parents of young children. People with care responsibilities for other family members, such as ageing relatives, relatives with a disability or chronic illness, or grandchildren, have been much less studied during the pandemic. Carers of these groups are more likely to be aged 45 and above. This report aims to fill this gap in research by exploring the circumstances of mature Australians (aged 45 and above) who had care responsibilities during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to understand the experiences of mature-aged carers (including carers of an ageing relative, carers of a person with a disability or chronic illness, grandparents, and parental carers, described collectively in this report as ‘carers’), the research team surveyed a panel of Australians aged 45 and above between June 2020 and October 2021 about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on various aspects of their work, family lives and wellbeing. Data was collected at four separate time points: June 2020, November 2020, April 2021 and October 2021. This analysis offers insights into how mature Australians reconciled their family and care responsibilities with paid work in the context of the pandemic across the four time points.

We found that carers and non-carers had equally supportive employers in terms of flexible work options. But this flexibility did not always translate into better work-life reconciliation. Carers struggled more than non-carers to meet their family/care responsibilities because of their work and found it more difficult to carry out their work because of their family/care responsibilities. Female carers fared worse than their male counterparts.

Younger mature carers (aged 45-54) struggled more than their older counterparts, with less support from their employers for flexible work arrangements in the first three surveyed time points and with poorer work-life balance. The better work-life balance and lower work-life conflict observed among carers aged 65 years and above was revealed to be partly a result of working fewer hours per week on average.

Mature Australians with care responsibilities for older relatives reported the least supportive employers when it came to flexibility. They also had the highest levels of work-life conflict among all groups of carers. Respondents caring for people with a disability or chronic illness or dependent children also reported high levels of work-life conflict at particular time points.

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